These Antarctic Research Photos Look Like Exploration on Another Planet

Some day, human explorers will land a spacecraft on the surface of Europa, Enceladus, Titan, or some other icy world and investigate first-hand the secrets hidden beneath its frozen surface. When that day comes — and it can’t come too soon for me! — it may look a lot like this.

One of a series of amazing photos by Stefan Hendricks taken during the Antarctic Winter Ecosystem & Climate Study (AWECS), a study of Antarctica’s sea ice conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, the image above shows researchers working on the Antarctic ice during a winter snowstorm. It’s easy to imagine them on the night-side surface of Europa, with the research vessel Polarstern standing in for a distant illuminated lander (albeit rather oversized).

Hey, one can dream!

One of the goals of the campaign, called CryoVex, was to look at how ESA’s CryoSat mission can be used to understand the thickness of sea ice in Antarctica. The extent of the Antarctic sea ice in winter is currently more than normal, which could be linked to changing atmospheric patterns.

Antarctica’s massive shelves of sea ice in winter are quite dramatic landscapes, and remind us that there are very alien places right here on our own planet.

See this and more photos from the mission on the ESA website (really, go check them out!)

New Scripps Research Ship Will Honor Astronaut Sally Ride

Dr. Sally K. Ride, physicist, NASA astronaut, and first American woman to fly in space, will be honored with a U.S. Navy research vessel bearing her name, which will be operated by and homeported at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“Dr. Sally Ride inspired millions of people, especially young women and girls, to reach for the stars,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “Naming the Navy’s new ocean research vessel in her honor is a fitting tribute to her legacy of innovation and discovery.”

Dr. Ride died at her home in La Jolla on July 23, 2012, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Sally Ride was a NASA astronaut for 11 years before joining the UCSD faculty as a physics professor.
Sally Ride was a NASA astronaut for 11 years before joining the UCSD faculty as a physics professor and director of the California Space Institute.

Dr. Ride was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1978 and became the first American woman in space aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. In 1989, she joined the faculty of UC San Diego as professor of physics and was director of the university’s California Space Institute.

“We are touched by the extraordinary honor that this ship is being named for Sally Ride, who, after serving our nation as a pioneering and accomplished astronaut, served on the faculty of UC San Diego for nearly two decades,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla in a Scripps press release. “Her commitment to teaching and inspiring young minds is legendary and we take tremendous pride in this prestigious and well-deserved honor for her legacy and for UC San Diego.”

According to Gary Robbins in an article for the San Diego Union-Tribune “It is common for a research vessel to be named after an explorer or scientist. Scripps’ current fleet of Navy-owned ships includes the Roger Revelle, which bears the name of the late UC San Diego scientist who helped pioneer the study of global warming. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Mass. is getting a ship named R/V Neil Armstrong.”

Rendering of the R/V Sally Ride
Rendering of the R/V Sally Ride

Designed to operate globally, R/V Sally Ride will continue the Scripps legacy of conducting pioneering ocean exploration and research critical to our understanding of our planet, our oceans, and our atmosphere. As a shared-use, general-purpose ship, R/V Sally Ride will engage in a broad spectrum of research in physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and climate science, including research missions with relevance to the Navy.

As a seagoing laboratory supporting research and education, the new ship will feature modern research instrumentation to fuel scientific exploration, including mapping systems, sensors, and profilers that will investigate features from the seafloor to the atmosphere.

“I can’t think of a more perfect name for the Navy’s new research vessel. Dr. Ride was a trailblazer in every sense of the word in the fields of science and engineering. Dr. Ride’s namesake ship and its crew will continue her legacy of courage, determination, and spirit of discovery.”

– U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.

R/V Sally Ride is currently under construction at Dakota Creek Industries Inc. in Anacortes, Washington, and is scheduled for launch in 2015.

Read more on the Scripps news site here, and watch a video on the naming of the vessel below:

Source: Scripps News

The Sun Doesn’t Cause Earthquakes

If that title seems like an obvious statement to you, it’s ok… it seems pretty obvious to me too. But there are those who have been suggesting — for quite some time, actually — that earthquakes can be triggered or strengthened by solar activity; that, in fact, exceptionally powerful solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other outpourings from our home star can cause the planet’s crust to shift, shake, and shudder.

Except that that’s simply not true — at least, not according to a recent study by researchers from the USGS.

Researchers Dr. Jeffrey Love from the United States Geological Survey and Dr. Jeremy Thomas from Northwest Research Associates compared historical data of solar activity with earthquake occurrences around the world and found no definitive correlations… nothing to suggest that one directly influenced the other.

“Recently there’s been a lot of interest in this subject from the popular press, probably because of a couple of larger and very devastating earthquakes. This motivated us to investigate for ourselves whether or not it was true.”

– Jeffrey Love, USGS Research Geophysicist

Even when an earthquake may have been found to occur on the same day as increased solar activity, at other times during even stronger quakes the Sun may have been relatively quiet, and vice versa.

Damage in Anchorage from an earthquake on March 27, 1964. Solar activity at the time was unexceptional. (U.S. Army photo)
Damage in Anchorage from an earthquake on March 27, 1964. Solar activity at the time was unexceptional. (U.S. Army photo)

“There have been some earthquakes like the 9.5 magnitude Chile quake in 1960 where, sure enough, there were more sunspots and more geomagnetic activity than on average,” said Dr. Love. “But then for the Alaska earthquake in 1964 everything was lower than normal. There’s no obvious pattern between solar activity and seismicity, so our results were inconclusive.”

Basically, even though our planet orbits within the Sun’s outer atmosphere and we are subject to the space weather it creates — and there’s still a lot to be learned about that — observations do not indicate any connection between sunspots, flares, and CMEs and the shifting of our planet’s crust (regardless of what some may like to suggest.)

“It’s natural for scientists to want to see relationships between things,” said Love. “Of course, that doesn’t mean that a relationship actually exists!”

The team’s findings were published in the March 16, 2013 online edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

Read more in Harriet Jarlett’s article on Planet Earth Online, and for results from another study see Dr. Ryan O’Milligan’s article on TheSunToday.org.

(Oh, and the Moon doesn’t cause earthquakes either.)

Galactic Gas Cloud Could Help Spot Hidden Black Holes

The heart of our Milky Way galaxy is an exotic place. It’s swarming with gigantic stars, showered by lethal blasts of high-energy radiation and a veritable cul-de-sac for the most enigmatic stellar corpses known to science: black holes. And at the center of the whole mélange is the granddaddy of all the black holes in the galaxy — Sagittarius A*,  a supermassive monster with 4 million times more mass than the Sun packed into an area smaller than the orbit of Mercury.

Sgr A* dominates the core of the Milky Way with its powerful gravity, trapping giant stars into breakneck orbits and actively feeding on anything that comes close enough. Recently astronomers have been watching the movement of a large cloud of gas that’s caught in the pull of Sgr A* — they’re eager to see what exactly will happen once the cloud (designated G2) enters the black hole’s dining room… it will, in essence, be the first time anyone watches a black hole eat.

But before the dinner bell rings — estimated to be sometime this September — the cloud still has to cover a lot of space. Some scientists are now suggesting that G2’s trip through the crowded galactic nucleus could highlight the locations of other smaller black holes in the area, revealing their hiding places as it passes.

In a new paper titled “G2 can Illuminate the Black Hole Population near the Galactic Center” researchers from Columbia University in New York City and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts propose that G2, a cloud of cool ionized gas over three times more massive than Earth, will likely encounter both neutron stars and other black holes on its way around (and/or into) SMBH Sgr A*.

Estimated number of stellar-mass black holes to be encountered by G2 along its trajectory (Bartos et al.)
Estimated number of stellar-mass black holes to be encountered by G2 along its trajectory (Bartos et al.)

The team notes that there are estimated to be around 20,000 stellar-mass black holes and about as many neutron stars in the central parsec of the galaxy. (A parsec is equal to 3.26 light-years, or 30.9 trillion km. In astronomical scale it’s just over 3/4 the way to the nearest star from the Sun.) In addition there may also be an unknown number of intermediate-mass black holes lurking within the same area.

These ultra-dense stellar remains are drawn to the center region of the galaxy due to the effects of dynamical friction — drag, if you will — as they move through the interstellar material.

Of course, unless black holes are feeding and actively throwing out excess gobs of hot energy and matter due to their sloppy eating habits, they are very nearly impossible to find. But as G2 is observed moving along its elliptical path toward Sgr A*, it could very well encounter a small number of stellar- and intermediate-mass black holes and neutron stars. According to the research team, such interactions may be visible with X-ray spotting spacecraft like NASA’s Chandra and NuSTAR.

Read more: Chandra Stares Deep Into the Heart of Sagittarius A*

NuSTAR X-ray image of a flare emitted by Sgr A* in July 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
NuSTAR X-ray image of a flare emitted by Sgr A* in July 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The chances of G2 encountering black holes and interacting with them in such a way as to produce bright enough x-ray flares that can be detected depends upon a lot of variables, like the angles of interaction, the relative velocities of the gas cloud and black holes, the resulting accretion rates of in-falling cloud matter, and the temperature of the accretion material. In addition, any observations must be made at the right time and for long enough a duration to capture an interaction (or possibly multiple interactions simultaneously) yet also be able to discern them from any background X-ray sources.

Still, according to the researchers such observations would be important as they could provide valuable information on galactic evolution, and shed further insight into the behavior of black holes.

Read the full report here, and watch an ESO news video about the anticipated behavior of the G2 gas cloud around the SMBH Sgr A* below:

This research was conducted by Imre Bartos, Zoltán Haiman, and Bence Kocsis of Columbia University and Szabolcs Márka of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 

The Most Remote Workplace on Earth

ESA’s Proba-1 satellite imaged the French-Italian Concordia base on November 21, 2012 (ESA)

Located in one of the loneliest locations on Earth, the French-Italian Concordia station was captured on high-resolution camera by ESA’s Proba-1 microsatellite last month, showing the snow-covered base and 25 square kilometers of the virtually featureless expanse of Antarctic ice surrounding it.

A cluster of scientific research buildings situated 3233 meters above sea level in the Antarctic interior, Concordia is one of the only permanently-crewed stations on the southern continent. Around 12–15 researchers and engineers spend months — sometimes over a year —  in isolation at Concordia, where during the winter months there are no deliveries, no chance of evacuation, temperatures below -80 ºC (-112 ºF) and the next closest station is 600 km (370 miles) away. It’s like working on another planet.

And that’s precisely why they’re there.

The researchers who live and work at Concordia are there because of the station’s incredible remoteness and harsh conditions. This allows them to study not only the pristine Antarctic ice beneath their feet but also how humans behave in such an environment, where a small team must learn to work together and merely venturing outside can be a hazardous task.

It’s the next closest thing to an actual outpost on Mars, or the Moon. Even the astronauts on the ISS aren’t as far removed from the rest of the world.

(Although the night sky views from Concordia can be comparably stunning.)

Concordia Base boasts some of the clearest, darkest — and coldest — skies on Earth (ESA/IPEV/PNRA – A. Salam)

Read more: Milky Way to Concordia Base… Come In, Concordia Base…

“Boredom and monotony are the enemy,” wrote ESA-sponsored medical researcher Dr. Alex Salam, regarding his 2009 13-month stay. “The darkness has a habit of sucking the motivation out of even the hardiest. But despite the effects the darkness can have on sleep, mood and cognitive performance, there is something inherently special about the Antarctic night. The heavens present a view that many stargazers can only ever dream of. You just have to try and catch a glimpse of the stars before your eyelashes freeze together!

“Seeing the station from a distance with the Milky Way towering far above it never failed to make me feel both awe inspired and simultaneously insignificant.”

And another recent long-term resident of Concordia, Dr. Alexander Kumar, who departed the base on November 15, shared this reflection as his year-long term was approaching its end:

“Concordia has, in removing me from civilisation where sometimes it is harder to step back, enabled me to see the bigger picture, provide a unique experience and reminded me of somethings, setting a course and direction for the future… I think once you come to Antarctica, drawn to it under a spell like a seaman to a mermaid, you never can break the link you form with this raw, rugged and ruthlessly beautiful and enticing continent.”

 The Sun returns to the Antarctic plateau (ESA/IPEV/PNRA – A. Salam)

“It’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to living on another planet.”

– Dr. Alex Salam

Read more about Concordia on the newly-redesigned ESA site here.

In orbit for over 11 years, Proba-1’s unique images are used by hundreds of scientific teams worldwide. To date its main Compact High Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (CHRIS) has acquired over 20,000 environmental science images used by a total of 446 research groups in 60 countries.

Final Push: Help Uwingu Create a New Concept for Funding Space Exploration and Astronomy

We’ve written about Uwingu previously, and this creative new concept for creating funding for space exploration and astronomy is now in their final push to reach their Indigogo goal of raising an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo page (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research. Indigogo provided the group a rare extension in their funding-raising drive, which now goes through Monday night, September 24 at 11:59PM Pacific Time.

Why Uwingu?

“It seems like every single year there is a funding problem for space researchers and educators, and every year it is something different,” said one the people behind Uwingu, Alan Stern, speaking on Colorado Public Radio. “It’s the economy or Congress or budget overruns, or cuts from the presidential administration, but every year there is a budget battle. … We started to think, what could we do that could make a difference?”

Stern is a huge name in the space and planetary science community, and he’s currently the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and was formerly Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Stern and the impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community who have teamed up to do this had the idea of creating a for-profit company that sells space themed products that children, educators, hobbyists — a wide range of people — who can purchase and enjoy. Half of all revenue go towards funding space research and education, and the other will go towards the costs of creating what they sell. Plans are to sell entertaining and educational apps about space and other themes, starting next month.

“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern told Universe Today. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”

“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.

As the funding period closes out, Stern will be on the Coast-to-Coast radio show with George Noory from 10-midnight PDT on Monday, September 24, so listen to him talk about Uwingu, New Horizons and the other missions he is part of.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu, visit the company’s Indiegogo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/180221

Sonic-Powered Levitation Allows for Zero-G Drug Research

It’s not special effects: researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have developed a way to cancel out the effects of gravity, allowing liquids to be held without containers. The effect is created using sound waves emitted by an acoustic levitator — an instrument designed by NASA for simulating microgravity.

Watch the video. It’s the coolest thing you’ll see all week.

This accomplishes more than just a neat effect; by keeping liquids in place without the need for a physical container, pharmaceutical research can be performed while the drugs are still in their purest, “amorphous” state.

“Most drugs on the market are crystalline – they don’t get fully absorbed by the body and thus we aren’t getting the most efficient use out of them,” said Yash Vaishnav, Argonne Senior Manager for Intellectual Property Development and Commercialization.

When solutions come in contact with the interior surfaces of their containers, evaporation takes place, which can lead to crystallization. In order to find a way to hold liquids without anything coming in contact with them (a tricky task while under the effect of Earth’s pesky gravity) ANL X-ray physicist Chris Benmore looked to NASA’s acoustic levitator.

Using two sets of sound waves emitted at 22khz and precisely aimed at each other, a “standing wave” is established at their center. The resulting acoustic force is strong enough to counter the downward tug of gravity at certain points (at least as far as droplets of liquid are concerned.)

The liquid drugs can then be studied without the problem of crystallization, making this technological parlor trick a powerful analytical tool for pharmaceutical researchers. The ultimate goal is to learn how to reduce the amount of a particular drug but still retain the desired effects — with less of the undesired ones.

Read more here on the Argonne National Lab site.

The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’sOffice of Science.

A Creative New Concept for Funding Space Exploration and Astronomy

An impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community have teamed up to create an innovative, out-of-the-box concept to help solve what appears to be a growing problem for researchers, scientists, educators and students: how to get funding for research and other ground-breaking projects. With NASA and National Science Foundation budgets shrinking, a new start-up called Uwingu (which means “sky” in Swahili) will be working to provide ways to keep space science thriving.

Founders of the project include notable names like Alan Stern, Andrew Chaikin, Pamela Gay, Geoff Marcy, Mark Sykes, David Grinspoon, and Emily CoBabe-Amman.

Stern told Universe Today that the group’s initiative is not so much in response to the current government funding troubles, but a way to expand resources for the space and astronomy community, which is “just smart business,” he said.

However, it is an indication of changing times. “We couldn’t do this without the internet, frankly, which provides a new avenue for reaching people,” Stern said.

Additionally, Stern contrasted space and astronomy research, which mainly relies on NASA and NSF grants, to medical research, which has multiple lines of funding venues such as pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the hundreds of medical foundations such as the American Cancer Society, in addition to government grants.

While Stern explained that he couldn’t yet reveal all the details of Uwingu, he did provide a few hints.

“The idea is to provide outstanding, innovative and cutting edge products,” he said. “We won’t just be accessing space and astronomy people who want to give to a cause, but will be accessing the general public, which is a much bigger marketplace.”

Dr. Pamela Gay wrote about Uwingu on her Starstryder website, saying “Their ideas are so elegant that I can’t believe they haven’t already been done.”

While the team is still finalizing some of their concepts, part of their reticence is building suspense. “Just like any new product line, it’s part of building suspense, just like Apple does when they release a new product. But we have a whole series of projects in work, and we want to do it right, too.”

Stern said part of what they are doing is to be a safety net for the space and astronomy community and part of it is to do new things. But, he added, when people have the greatest need is probably a good time to launch a project like this.

Uwingu is looking to raise an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo site (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research.

“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern said. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”

“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu, visit the company’s Indiegogo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/180221

Mars Has Watery Insides, Just Like Earth

Researchers from the Carnegie Institution have found that water is present in surprisingly Earthlike amounts within Mars’ mantle, based on studies of meteorites that originate from the Red Planet. The findings offer insight as to how Martian water may have once made its way to the planet’s surface, as well as what may lie within other terrestrial worlds.

Earth has water on its surface (obviously) and also within its crust and mantle. The water content of Earth’s upper mantle — the layer just below the crust —  is between 50 and 300 ppm (parts per million). This number corresponds to what the research team has identified within the mantle of Mars, based on studies of two chunks of rock — called shergottites — that were blasted off Mars during an impact event 2.5 million years ago.

“We analyzed two meteorites that had very different processing histories,” said Erik Hauri, the analysis team’s lead investigator from the Carnegie Institute . “One had undergone considerable mixing with other elements during its formation, while the other had not. We analyzed the water content of the mineral apatite and found there was little difference between the two even though the chemistry of trace elements was markedly different. The results suggest that water was incorporated during the formation of Mars and that the planet was able to store water in its interior during the planet’s differentiation.”

The water stored within Mars’ mantle may have made its way to the surface through volcanic activity, the researchers suggest, creating environments that were conducive to the development of life.

Like Earth, Mars may have gotten its water from elements available in the neighborhood of the inner Solar System during its development. Although Earth has retained its surface water while that on Mars got lost or frozen, both planets appear to have about the same relative amounts tucked away inside… and this could also be the case for other rocky worlds.

“Not only does this study explain how Mars got its water, it provides a mechanism for hydrogen storage in all the terrestrial planets at the time of their formation,” said former Carnegie postdoctoral scientist Francis McCubbin, who led the study.

The team’s research is published in the July edition of the journal Geology. Read more on the Carnegie Institution for Science’s site here.

Image: The remains of what appears to be a river delta within Eberswalde crater on Mars, imaged by ESA’s Mars Express. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

Dark Matter Makes a Comeback

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Recent reports of dark matter’s demise may be greatly exaggerated, according to a new paper from researchers at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Astronomers with the European Southern Observatory announced in April a surprising lack of dark matter in the galaxy within the vicinity of our solar system.

The ESO team, led by Christian Moni Bidin of the Universidad de Concepción in Chile, mapped over 400 stars near our Sun, spanning a region approximately 13,000 light-years in radius. Their report identified a quantity of material that matched what could be directly observed: stars, gas, and dust… but no dark matter.

“Our calculations show that it should have shown up very clearly in our measurements,” Bidin had stated, “but it was just not there!”

But other scientists were not so sure about some assumptions the ESO team had based their calculations upon.

Researchers Jo Bovy and Scott Tremaine from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, have submitted a paper claiming that the results reported by Moni Biden et al are “incorrect”, and based on an “invalid assumption” of the motions of stars within — and above — the plane of the galaxy.

(Read: Astronomers Witness a Web of Dark Matter)

“The main error is that they assume that the mean azimuthal (or rotational) velocity of their tracer population is independent of Galactocentric cylindrical radius at all heights,” Bovy and Tremaine state in their paper. “This assumption is not supported by the data, which instead imply only that the circular speed is independent of radius in the mid-plane.”

The researchers point out the stars within the local neighborhood move slower than the average velocity assumed by the ESO team, in a behavior called asymmetric drift. This lag varies with a cluster’s position within the galaxy, but, according to Bovy and Tremaine, “this variation cannot be measured for the sample [used by Moni Biden’s team] as the data do not span a large enough range.”

When the IAS researchers took Moni Biden’s observations but replaced the ESO team’s “invalid” assumptions on star movement within and above the galactic plane with their own “data-driven” ones, the dark matter reappeared.

Artist's impression of dark matter surrounding the Milky Way. (ESO/L. Calçada)

“Our analysis shows that the locally measured density of dark matter is consistent with that extrapolated from halo models constrained at Galactocentric distances,” Bovy and Tremaine report.

As such, the dark matter that was thought to be there, is there. (According to the math, that is.)

And, the two researchers add, it’s not only there but it’s there in denser amounts than average — at least in the area around our Sun.

“The halo density at the Sun, which is the relevant quantity for direct dark matter detection experiments, is likely to be larger because of gravitational focusing by the disk,” Bovy and Tremaine note.

When they factored in their data-driven calculations on stellar velocities and the movement of the halo of non-baryonic material that is thought to envelop the Milky Way, they found that “the dark matter density in the mid-plane is enhanced… by about 20%.”

So rather than a “serious blow” to the existence of dark matter, the findings by Bovy and Tremaine — as well as Moni Biden and his team — may have not only found dark matter, but given us 20% more!

Now that’s a good value.

Read the IAS team’s full paper here.

(Tip of the non-baryonic hat to Christopher Savage, post-doctorate researcher at the Oskar Klein Centre for Cosmoparticle Physics at Stockholm University for the heads up on the paper.)